Here’s a problem that illustrates how practical a little theory can be in sorting out the intricacies of modern English. Should I write skyscrapers typify modern architecture or the skyscraper typifies modern architecture? The question draws us into the way many (but not all) languages work, and understanding these constructions can help us make better choices.
Most of us, I think it’s fair to say, pride ourselves on being realists: things are what they are, and let’s deal with what’s in front of us. Indeed, some of us (and probably more than we think) are in our deepest hearts practicalists: what’s true is what works, and that’s that. We like the specific, the actual, the historic, and as we have seen before (Concrete and Abstract), these proclivities are indispensable to clear, strong writing. But a little honest reflection will reveal to us that the pure realist is a figment of our imagination, for we evidently do have the capacity to step back from the ongoing world and think more general thoughts, thoughts that certainly begin with the particulars of the real world, but finish as larger, more comprehensive statements of truth.
This, in fact, is what is at issue in the two examples before us. When I say skyscrapers typify modern architecture, I do not mean to point to any one or many particular buildings and from that conclude that those very structures are the reason I believe skyscrapers typify modern architecture; I mean instead to make a statement of a general truth that arises when one considers the prevalence of skyscrapers, here and there and everywhere in the world. Grammatically, this is why there is no definite article (the) before the noun skyscraper in this sentence. Definite articles make the reference to a noun more specific, and that would be to work against my intention here to make a statement of general truth.
But doesn’t the alternative, the skyscraper typifies modern architecture, contradict that? After all, this sentence begins with a definite article, and yet it too is clearly making a general statement. The important grammatical difference to note, though, is that the noun skyscraper in this sentence is singular, not plural. If definite articles make the reference to a noun more specific, then the noun being referred to here is, ghostily, not present at all: the skyscraper typifies modern architecture really means the idea of the skyscraper typifies modern architecture. There are no plurals in the world of ideas, and that bit of philosophy is reflected in the grammatical constructions we employ.
So which is correct? Grammatically, either passes the test, but rhetorically, skyscrapers typify modern architecture is a step (albeit a tiny step) closer to the real world we pride ourselves on living in because that’s the only place where many skyscrapers can exist. The plural noun, in other words, keeps the attention closer to our familiar world of objects. It can help us as writers to remember, though, that a world of ideas always lies behind that world of things, and the trick we’re to perform with words is to weave those two worlds artfully together.